Tennis Scandal Doesn't Have to End Like Cycling's
We may never find out whether some of the players in the 2016 Australian Open are guilty of throwing matches. Tennis's governing authorities deny allegations that they have ignored widespread match-fixing. But the self-immolation of cycling, soccer and other sports shows that denial and obfuscation are the wrong way to deal with accusations of impropriety.
We tennis fans had been feeling pretty smug up to now. While soccer's global heroes are often caught in flagrante delicto, tennis's biggest stars, at least in the post-Boris Becker era, seem to live in almost monastic dedication to their sport. They pen books about clean eating and raise awareness for charitable causes in Africa.
The overseers of tennis aren't beyond criticism. There are valid complaints about the misallocation of resources, cronyism and -- at least in the case of the Lawn Tennis Association which runs tennis in Britain and is responsible for Wimbledon -- bureaucratic ineptitude. But these are nothing compared to the scandal that incinerated football's governing body last year. They can't compete with athletics, where a World Anti-Doping Agency report said "corruption was embedded." And there is nothing in our sport on a par with Lance Armstrong's confession that doping was as much a part of cycling as padded lycra.
Tennis has also had its occasional fallen angels. We clicked our tongues when French star Richard Gasquet, a player with a stinging one-handed back-hand, tested positive for cocaine (not generally listed as a performance-enhancing drug for sport) in 2009. He was cleared when the panel accepted his explanation that the substance entered his system unbeknownst upon kissing a woman in a Miami nightclub. That hardly counts as systemic.
Swiss star Martina Hingis, winner of five grand slam singles titles including at the Aussie Open, was handed a two-year suspension for testing positive for cocaine in 2008. Hingis maintained she was innocent and returned to the game to become an international doubles star. Andre Agassi confessed in his excellent 2009 autobiography to having used crystal meth while a player. He went on to become one of the game's all-time greats and a notable philanthropist. Even when they fall, tennis's stars are redeemed -- Becker is now a sought-after commentator and coach to world number one Novak Djokovic.
There have been the occasional (lower-ranking) dopers caught and disciplined. Last March, American player Wayne Odesnik, then the world's 267th best-ranked player, was handed a career-ending 15-year ban after testing positive for steroids and other banned substances for a second time. The sport's grandees cheered openly. "Bye bye Wayne -- good riddance," tweeted Andy Murray. Show over, everyone moved on.
And while the Tennis Integrity Union and the Association of Tennis Professionals would like us to move on now too, allegations of match-fixing have been floating around for some time. In 2007, then world number four Nikolai Davydenko was accused of feigning an injury to forfeit a can't-lose match against 87th ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello. Betting flooded in just before the match -- a total of 3.6 million pounds ($5.1 million) was wagered on the game, much of it against Davydenko, a Russian known for his grinding consistency on court. The bets were voided amid suspicions of fixing, though Davydenko was never charged and new rules were adopted soon after.
The investigation by the BBC and BuzzFeed News -- which analyzed betting on 26,000 matches to identify anomalies that suggest match-fixing may have taken place -- will not be so easily dismissed. Gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy, they report, have profited handsomely from highly suspicious bets on matches at Wimbledon and the French Open, as well as smaller tournaments.
The scandals that embroiled cycling, football, athletics and cricket tell us two things about the power of corruption in big sport: As with banking, it is almost statistically guaranteed at some level. The second lesson is that the longer the governing remains in denial, the more reputational damage is done, though sports followers, like Star Wars fans, are usually willing to suspend disbelief for longer than is logical.
In some ways, the biggest surprise is that tennis isn't more tainted. Dishonesty is rife in junior tennis; learning to deal with "hooks" (bad line calls by your opponent) is an unavoidable rite of passage in the junior game.
At the professional level, the stakes are much greater; ranking points mean access to tournaments, prize money and even sustenance. There are 62 ATP tournaments a year in 31 countries as well as other lower-level events; but the vast majority of professional players are journeymen who eke out a living travelling from tournament to far-flung tournament, sometimes camping or staying with tennis-loving host families. For these players, there is no entourage of coaches, physios or super-model girlfriends. Sponsorship comes more in the way of free racquets and clothes than multi-million dollar ad deals.
The lower the ranking, the greater the likelihood they will face seeded players early on in a tournament, increasing the odds of an early knock-out and a miniscule pay-out. Losing 80 percent of matches is normal. That continues 11 months a year. Even a top-100 player may travel thousands of miles for a victory that nets only a few thousand dollars, a long way from the 3.1 million Australian dollars ($2.15 million) payday for this year's Aussie Open men's champion. Many players are out of pocket even when winning matches and tournaments.
In 2013, there were 8,874 male professional players whose average costs, not including coaching, were $38,800 a year according to the International Tennis Federation's pro circuit review. The total prize money awarded in 2013 for men was $162 million which, evenly distributed, would have given each male player $32,638. But in that year, the top 1 percent of male players won 60 percent of the prize money. The average professional Joe would have averaged $13,195. The average U.K. premier league soccer player, to compare, earns 2.3 million pounds a year.
And yet gambling on tennis is second only to soccer. Given an annual global market for sports betting that is estimated to be as high as $3 trillion, that is a lot of betting. And with only two players in a singles match, one usually a favorite based on rankings or current form, it's not hard to see how match-fixing might be tempting. Tennis would benefit from more earnings opportunities spread a bit more widely. That would be good for both players and fans, though hardly a guarantee against corruption.
Each year the Aussie Open dazzles with its punishing five-set duels in the Australian heat, early exits by big names and improbable victories by lesser-known ones. Sometimes new champions are born. But even Rafael Nadal's first-round loss Tuesday couldn't displace the off-court upset of the match-fixing allegations. Tennis is looking a little less white and a little more like other sports.
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